It was their last evening together before an Afghanistan deployment would separate the Army officer and his longtime love. They’d planned a cozy dinner at a neighborhood Italian place. But when they got there, they saw people they knew — the officer’s supervisor, in fact, out with his family.
So instead of gazing at each other in the candlelight, or making toasts to their future, they pretended they were college roommates.
“It was utterly demeaning,” said the officer’s partner. “Resorting to ‘Hey, bud’ comments when we were trying to have the last romantic evening we’d get until his mid-tour leave six months later.
“Relationships are hard enough,” he said. “I wanted us to have a dignified existence together.”
Being a gay couple in the military has been difficult, said both men. They agreed to be interviewed about how their lives have been under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy requiring gay men and lesbians in the services not to reveal their sexual orientation — and how they expect their lives to change with its repeal.
Congress passed a law to repeal the policy last year; open service for gay men and lesbians will begin 60 days after the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that it won’t affect military readiness. Training to prepare troops for the repeal is nearing completion, and surveys have shown that the majority of the American public supports open service by gay men and lesbians.
But for now the policy remains in effect, and until the law is repealed, openly gay servicemembers technically can lose their jobs if they publicly disclose their sexual orientation. So the men, who live in the Washington, D.C., area, requested their names not be used.
Both are in their 40s and well-educated. The officer, a patriotic and religious southerner, was commissioned through ROTC shortly before an encounter with another male cadet confirmed his suspicion that he might be gay.
He was ashamed.
“I was convinced I could pray the gay away,” he said.
When that didn’t work, he tried to live an asexual life, but that, too, was unsuccessful. He talked to an Army psychologist. “I said, ‘What do I do now?’ And she said, ‘I have no advice for you.’ ’’
The officer told almost no one about his private life, and said he kept soldiers and colleagues at arm’s length.
“I had to turn inward,” he said. “I have my family, I have my real friends and I have my Army friends — they can never really know me.”
He said he always made sure he never made any gesture that could in any way be interpreted as a sexual overture. “Gay dudes and lesbian women are so afraid of being perceived as predatory,” he said. “I’d be flipping horrified I’d get my ass beat.”
Dating opportunities within the military, always dicey, grew scarcer as he rose in the ranks; he would never even have thought of a romantic relationship with an enlisted soldier, he said, because that would be “fraternization,” against the rules, and wrong.
He met his partner, a lawyer utterly unfamiliar with the military, who was “out” and did not deny his sexuality, a decade ago. By then, he’d started to feel more comfortable being who he was.
“I still hated myself a little bit,” the officer said. “But when I allowed myself to give myself over to someone. … It turns out (love) is real, and it’s life-changing.”
Although love made most things easier, it made hiding harder. “You can either lie, which is deeply ethically troubling,” he said, “or you can peel off a part of yourself.”
Over the years, he’s had to parry numerous attempts from colleagues wanting to fix him up with women they know — and never say a word about the most important person in his life.
A few years ago, his new commander, an affable general officer who’d been married for some 35 years, asked him if he were married. He said he wasn’t.
“Engaged?’ the general asked.
“No, sir,” he said.
“No girl in your life?” the general persisted.
“No, sir,” he said.
“I just don’t know how you do it,” the general said. “I’ve learned to trust people who are in committed relationships.”
The officer never told the general he was in a committed relationship.
“I told about 20 people in the past decade,” he said. “Maybe 10 active-duty people.”
Yet he admits he’s had it easier than gay and lesbian enlisted troops.
“I am protected by rank,” he said. “Specialist so-and-so is not going to ask me prying questions.”
When he did tell, his friends had often already guessed as much, or were hurt he hadn’t trusted them enough to tell them sooner.
“Many turned out to have gay brothers or sisters,” he said, or their wives had had gay friends.
Still, the DADT policy — despite its provision to discharge troops for homosexual conduct, not orientation — produced a witch-hunt atmosphere, they said.
“There really was always a very real threat someone would trigger the DOD machinery — if the wrong pronoun was used or the wrong photo accidentally landed in the lap of someone who felt it was his or her professional and moral ‘duty’ to pass it up the chain of command,” said the officer’s partner. “No one had to ask nor did anyone have to tell. Yet suddenly, the servicemember was under investigation.”
Between deployments, the pair traveled every weekend and not because they wanted to. “We were very rarely in the same place twice,” the officer said. “I kind of felt like I was in a witness relocation program.”
It wasn’t an idle fear. More than 14,000 service members have been discharged under the policy, including more than 5,600 since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which offers confidential legal advice to gay troops.
Their life together has also posed other problems for the officer’s partner, who has accompanied him to different assignments in the U.S. and overseas, just as traditional military wives do. His career took a distant second-place to his military mate’s. “I can’t believe the hit my career has taken,” he said.
He’s had none of the support most military spouses get — housing, hiring preferences, and the like — and during a recent deployment, he ate his birthday dinner in an expensive restaurant alone.
“It’s always been worth it because (the officer) is worth it,” his partner said. “He’s pretty much perfect.”
He did become friends with some military wives, including a co-worker, an officer’s wife who told him that she knew he was gay, although he hadn’t said so. She told him that she was mortified the Army made him live a fearful and secret life.
He had never disclosed his relationship; he left that decision to the officer. But that one time, he told.
She “made me feel a little closer to the military family — one more spouse on which to unload all the frustrations of being married to the military,” he said. “She was … wonderful.”
Although the Defense of Marriage Act means gay military couples will not be entitled to the same housing and other benefits married heterosexual military couples enjoy, for the first time the two are anticipating freedom from anxiety about being outed and suffering for it.
“I’ll no longer have to worry that because a general is calling me on Sunday night and he wants to meet with me Monday, that I’m fired,” the officer said. “And then I can’t sleep Sunday night. I’ve done this a hundred times.”
He believes in the Army’s leaders. He believes that after some months of difficulties, including some “violence in the ranks” when the policy is lifted, things will settle down and being gay won’t be an issue.
“When people understand that they’re high-performing soldiers — when they find out they’re gay — (commanders) are not going to tolerate people being treated differently,” he said.
Yet he still plans to keep his private life confidential.
“I have no intention of outing myself,” the officer said. “I don’t know why I need to. What I do plan to do is live my life more honestly.
“I know I will no longer be afraid,” he said. “That’s huge. That’s kind of great. I’ll finally feel … almost like a citizen.”